My Elvis experience growing up was of the bloated, sequined, goggle-sunglasses-wearing, jumpsuit, and karate-kicking Elvis. Hence I wondered what was so great about this guy and why he was so famous. What follows are my thoughts on The King!
Ground Zero for the Rock and Roll Explosion
Consider that Elvis, more than any other figure, is ground zero for popularizing rock and roll. He was the tipping point. Elvis was the one who, through his Sun recordings and RCA debut, defined rock and roll for not only the other artists that followed but the fans who turned it into a billion-dollar business. Elvis Presley’s package of great looks, terrific voice, stellar backing band, early uncanny song choices, and southern charm was singular compared to his contemporaries. He was the slightly dangerous boy next door. Add to the mix the then-new medium of television, and nothing less than a phenomenon was created. No other artist created a more considerable stir on Tommy Dorsey, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Steve Allen Shows than the hip-swiveling hillbilly.
The Nasty Reality of Race in the 1950s
Producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records famously said he was looking for “a white singer who sounded black!” With Elvis, he was convinced he found just that.
When you think about the bluntness of that statement today, it isn’t very kind. Especially when you contrast Elvis, who wrote none of his material, and was at best a marginal guitarist, against pioneering peers Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Chuck Berry wrote a timeless catalog of songs and revolutionized the electric guitar for all future players in the process. And nearly everything about Little Richard screamed Rock and Roll. The abandon, the glitz, the “whop-bop” screams.
That being said, let us not forget that while Chuck Berry was cranking out dozens of classic songs, he composed himself, revolutionizing the guitar. Little Richard was bringing spiritual (and sexual) abandon to rock and roll; Elvis was busy being caught up in the hubris surrounding him, which was only possible because he was white. He succeeded when whites had their drinking fountains. Much of his success was due to his co-opting for himself (and the white community), what African Americans have been doing for some time – making great music. If I were a member of the African American community, not sure, I’d appreciate Elvis all that much.
Over time, and this is where the problem starts in his understanding of his legacy, he proved himself more Pat Boone than Joe Turner or Mama Thornton. His post-RCA debut is one of the most frustrating recording legacies in Rock and Roll. There are a few decent tunes here and there, but nothing cohesive – essentially a catalog of overproduced crap. He created the nostalgia act long before PBS rolled them out for pledge drives. The British invasion came, and Elvis was conspicuously absent busy making lame movies.
Many point to the Elvis 68 comeback as an extraordinary moment he stepped out from the shadows and redeemed himself as “the King of Rock and Roll!” It is an entertaining show and worth a view. It is a cultural moment. He looked fantastic with his sideburns, black leather, and tan/teeth contrast. The highlight? The nostalgia of him sitting around with his original band recapturing some of the early magic.
In the Ghetto, Burning Love, and Suspicious Minds, his “hits” during rock and roll’s real heyday in the ’60s, underscore Elvis’s weakness as an artist – all these songs were composed by someone else. While Elvis may have had input into the arrangements of his songs, any writing credits were primarily the result of a bargain struck by his manager, the notorious Col. Tom Parker. Elvis would record some songs only if he could share in the royalties through a songwriting credit (a common practice at the time). While Elvis was a gifted singer, his songs always made and sustained the true star. Elvis was fortunate in his early career to find songs composed by Otis Blackwell, Leiber and Stoller, and many others that turned out to be timeless. By the mid and late ’60s, the well of great songs had dried up for Mr. Presley, and a new precedent had been set in the music business.
The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, and many others established a new norm that rock and roll artists needed to compose their music. This way, the songs match the artist and come with them through their career. The game was changed, and the bar was raised. Elvis, in effect, became rock’s first dinosaur, unable to compete with those who compose for themselves.
This wasn’t his fault; he never was that type of artist. Nor was Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, or other crooners of the ’50s. He was that weird hybrid of being a crooner in the Bing Crosby tradition but having the attitude of James Dean. Like Bing and Frank, he never woodshedded on the craft of songwriting. It was never a thought. What he did was sing – and that he could do! Even toward the end, he still had a terrific voice which can be heard in the sometimes goofy but ultimately satisfying documentary; This is Elvis.
Elvis is to be the tragic figure in rock and roll. He was caught up in something bigger than himself he couldn’t control. He rode the wave. He was ill-prepared to manage his own decisions, and the people surrounding him were no help. Col. Parker, in particular, comes across as a macabre and sinister figure. The Colonel kept “the King” on a treadmill of less-than-mediocre money-making engagements – never stepping in to provide counsel as things unraveled. He sat on the sidelines while Elvis choked down handfuls of regularly over-prescribed medicines, ultimately leading to his death at age 42.
When Parker was interviewed toward the end of their life, he was unaware his sister had died several years earlier. In the end, Parker, more than anyone, may have contributed to the tragic Elvis I and so many others grew up with.
Elvis became famous for being famous long before there were paparazzi and tabloids. The endless money stream ensured by Parker’s management created a monster whose foolish decisions and posse of hangers-on did him no favors. He dated a 14-year-old who he later married, made Graceland and the Jungle Room, and still became a cultural icon. He paved the way for Michael Jackson (who married Presley’s daughter) and died of a similar, pharmacologically induced death.
It’s impossible to escape Presley. He’s had US Postage Stamps and slot machines in his honor – impersonators and revival shows. He’s won Grammy awards. His home was the name of a Grammy-winning album by Paul Simon. Spinal Tap talked at his grave about how his death provided “a little too f’ing much perspective.” He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Somehow for me, though, he’s a bit like Orson Welles. How could the rotund, wine-pitchman who regularly pontificated on the Merv Griffin Show be the same guy who made Citizen Kane? It doesn’t seem possible. How could this fried banana, bacon, and hot peanut butter sandwich-eating’ guy doing karate kicks while uttering “TCB” be the same guy who stepped into Sam Phillips Memphis Studio and set the music world on fire with Mystery Train?
Well, that’s because he’s just like Kane, an enigma. As is life itself. Sometimes the dots don’t connect the way we want them to. With Elvis, that is the case. Too bad.
Long live the King!